Amber Sam Chee’s front door is about one mile from the entrance to her 6-year-old’s elementary school in Elkridge.
It’s a tricky journey door to door for her daughter, Alana Sam Chee, to make alone on foot. The route to Rockburn Elementary School has blind curves, steep hills and, at times, no sidewalk.
“I don’t trust strangers, and I don’t trust cars,” Amber Sam Chee said. “Too many things can happen between here and there.”
A year ago, the family’s address in the Linwood community would have qualified them to receive bus services from the Howard County Public School System. But the district’s new transportation plan places Sam Chee’s home squarely in the walking zone.
Expanded walk zones are one of several major changes coming this fall to the Howard County school system’s transportation policy for more than 57,000 students. The changes have been in the works since April 2021, when the Howard County Board of Education directed the superintendent to prepare recommendations for later high school start times. And they come at a time when Howard and school systems across the nation are facing a shortage of bus drivers following the pandemic.
The changes have roiled some parents and frustrated a group of local bus drivers. Both groups have pushed back against the transportation plan for this fall. School system officials and bus drivers say they reached an agreement this week to address concerns about contracting bus routes.
The board’s goal to roll out new start times during the 2023-24 academic year has had a cascading effect on the system’s transportation policy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends middle and high schools begin after 8:30 a.m. to improve students’ health, safety and academic success.
To make the new schedule logistically and financially feasible, leaders say the school system needed to expand walking zones around schools and require families to opt in to bus services this fall.
Brian Nevin, Howard County’s director of student transportation, said 96% of families who qualify for transportation submitted forms to the district either waiving or requesting bus service. The remaining 4% of students who did not submit the form this fall will be automatically enrolled, he said.
When school start times were condensed into a shorter window, the system as a whole lost time from the schedule that buses were previously using to double back for more students, district spokesperson Brian Bassett said.
“Not everyone is going to embrace the change right away,” Bassett said.
Whenever the school system leaders discussed changing start times in the past, the necessary corresponding changes to the transportation policy were believed to be cost prohibitive, Nevin said. The expanded walk zones and other such changes stem from the school board’s directive to find the lowest-cost solution.
Expanding walk zones put the district more in line with other Maryland school systems’ transportation policies. But it also effectively cut bus service for about 3,500 students like Alana and angered some parents. Nevin estimates his department has fielded 200 to 250 concerns from families.
Exceptions to the policy exist for students who are receiving special education services or are deemed by district officials to lack a safe walking route. Administrators on Tuesday denied the Sam Chee family’s request for an exemption ahead of the first day of school Aug. 28. Families have the right to appeal decisions to an outside committee before routes are finalized in mid-August.
A group of parents tried unsuccessfully to block the new transportation policy from going into effect. They circulated several petitions and protested outside school board meetings, according to the Baltimore Sun. One parent looked into hiring a bus service for his neighborhood but abandoned the plan because he believed private vehicles wouldn’t have access to bus lanes at schools. Nevin said his office has authorized use of bus loops in the past.
During the board’s meeting in July, members acknowledged frustrations around the new policy and asked staff for a report on the policy’s implementation after 60 days of school.
Meanwhile, a concurrent dispute was taking place between local transportation vendors and the school system concerning changes to the way contracts for bus routes are awarded. In preparation for the adjustment to school start times, the board voted in spring 2022 to terminate its contracts with all transportation vendors — but later reversed that decision after more than 20 contractors filed a lawsuit.
The system also moved forward with a new process for awarding contracts, one that some vendors contend was designed to favor larger companies. About half of the school system’s 478 bus routes this fall will be managed by Zum, a private, California-based transportation company. Another 58 routes will be managed by Elkridge-based Tip Top Transportation. Remaining routes will be handled by the district’s other longtime vendors.
After working with the Howard County school system for 20 years, transportation contractor Henderson Brathwaite called the policy and operational changes a “kick in the teeth.” Brathwaite, who operates HOB Enterprises LLC, concedes he’s struggled to hire and retain drivers since the pandemic and can’t cover as many routes as larger companies.
Brathwaite said some drivers on his payroll have been offered jobs with Zum this fall. And they report seeing yard signs outside Howard County schools advertising bus driver jobs with the California-based company. Bassett said the school system has a long-standing practice of helping its transportation contractors advertise job openings.
Bus contractors behind the lawsuit have since dropped their complaint in favor of mediating directly with the school system. On Friday, representatives for both sides confirmed they had reached an agreement and said terms would soon be released publicly.
System officials said in a statement Friday that they “will move forward in support of their joint mission of meeting Howard County’s student transportation needs.”
With the beginning of the fall semester just weeks away, Amber Sam Chee doesn’t believe the school system is likely to reverse its plan. She’ll drive Alana directly to Rockburn Elementary on the first day of school and join the line of cars waiting to drop students at the entrance.
“There’s no way she’s walking,” Sam Chee said.